After the Big Now

Imagine another version of the Internet respectful of people’s attention and time.

The Swatch .Beat Webstream Black YQS1002 in the middle of retired digital artifacts

In 1998, Swatch proposed a global time called the Internet Time that divided a day into 1000 “.beats”. It was meant for people to coordinate time for calls, chats or multiplayer online games. Right after the announcement, the company rolled out a model of watch, branded ‘Swatch .beat’, that displayed Swatch Internet Time as well as standard time. It was a watchmaker’s response to the way the Internet started to reconfigure people’s relation to time.

Back then, I was an engineering student living in proximity to Swatch’s headquarters in Biel, Switzerland. I became fascinated by this concept when the now CEO Nick Hayek Jr. introduced it in a conference on campus. In his presentation, Hayek made a call for creativity and ingenuity to which I responded a few weeks after. Along with a friend, we had produced the design and code of an Internet Time displayed in analog form. It never got implemented but I won a Swatch .Beat Webstream Black YQS1002 in return. I have been wearing that watch ever since.

At that moment I became aware how the Internet had a profound grip of temporality on society and I explored the interplay between technology and time even further. For instance, the Spiekermann & Wegener’s time-space maps always amazed me as a with their profound visualization of travel times shrinking with the improvements of railway network and schedules.

Base map (60 km/h). Source: S&W
Railway travel times 1993. Source: S&W
Railway travel times 2020. The new space and time configurations are particularly striking in France with the development of the high-speed trains in the 90s. Source: S&W.

The use of the Internet Time never really took off, but Swatch publicity stunt worked perfectly. The Internet developed into a formidable network of asynchronous communications, making .beats time coordination for chatting, calling or gaming an exception rather than the rule. Like high-speed trains, the Internet had also compressed time. Today, the engineering student I was would probably program smart watches that report to our wrists instant notifications about pollution levels, the arrival of a drone delivery, or the status updates of remote friends. I would read about cybernetics and be fascinated by how movements, eyeballs, fingers are part of a global feedback loop; how they notify machine learning algorithms that notify back individuals, influencing their behaviors that aliment back the Internet with data. That current version of the Internet is the quintessence of the “Big Now”, a notion coined by Adam Greenfield as “the enhanced and deepened sense of simultaneity — of the world’s massive parallelism — that certain digital artifacts lend us”.

Adam Greenfield’s description of the Big Now at Lift in 2008 is still applicable today.

The Big Now is a very profitable business with major online services competing to hook people, control their data, and grab their attention for as long as possible. In parallel, that same tech industry revolutionized ways to run businesses with its technologies (e.g. Amazon Web Services), tools (e.g. Google Drive) and set of principles (e.g. the Agile development). Speed and scale have become the prime indicators of economic success and have been transferred to professionals to do what they are already doing in less time and therefore cheaper. Incubators, accelerators, catapults, sprints, scale-ups are part of contemporary settings and methods for teams to innovate in the Big Now economy. These terms reveal an evolution of a language that inevitably sacralize fast execution as a lifestyle. What could be wrong with that?

My box of retired digital artifacts shows the tendency in the tech world for planned obsolescence to race ahead of longevity or sustainability.

That idea of efficiency through speed brought by the tech industry has consequences for society. First, the immediacy of the communications creates moments of intense information overload and distractions. Like other moments of major revolution in information technology, people are racing behind to adapt to the increasing pace of information exchange. In the Big Now, the pool of instantaneous information has dramatically increased, however the pool of available understanding of what that information means has not. People and organizations are still seeking new practices and means to filter, categorize and prioritize information in a world obsessed with the production and consumption of the freshest data points (see Social media at human pace). Doing so, they animate almost uniquely their capacity to fast-check status updates and leave their ability for reflection unstimulated (see, in French, L’écologie de l’attention). The Big Now is not designed for people to step back and understand information in a bigger context (e.g. poor debates in the recent US elections, inability to foresee the 2008 economic crisis). It is only recently that alternatives have started to emerge. For example, the recent strategic changes at Medium proposes to reverse the tendency:

“We believe people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention”.

Ev Williams, CEO of Medium

Secondly, the asynchronous Internet diminished the frontiers between work, family and leisure. In response, the tech world proposes to ‘hack’ time and to remove frictions (e.g. Soylent diet) to free up time. The flourishing personal productivity books and apps promise peace of mind with time-management advice tailored to the era of connected devices (see The global village and its discomfort). However, like building bigger roads make traffic worse, many of these solutions only provide a quick fix that induces even busier and more stressed lifestyles (see Why time management is ruining our lives). In the Big Now and its cybernetic loops, the more efficient we get at doing things and the more data we generate, the faster the Internet gets back to us, keeps us busy and grabs our limited amount of attention. Besides the promises of time-compression technologies to save us valuable time and free us for life’s important things, in the past half-century, leisure time has remained overall about the same (see Fast-world values).

In the 90s, the French railway company SNCF brilliantly advertised the capacity of their high-speed trains (TGV) to compress time with the slogan “Prenez le temps d’aller vite”, an oxymore that translates into “Take your time to go fast”.

However, speed is only one dimension of how individuals, organizations, society use technology to negotiate time. The flexibility that information technologies enable through coordination and organization can connect us with other characteristics of time. For instance, apparently the amount of ‘quality time’ (talking, playing, listening) both mothers and fathers spend with their children has been increasing, not decreasing. Yet, the Big Now does not embrace that reality. In the Big Now, there is no idle time. It feels wrong not to be busy. It is not designed to make time. It is not meant to invest time.

Try to imagine another version of the Internet in which the sense of simultaneity that Adam Greenfield described moves to the background of our lives and leaves stage for temporal depth and quality. Connecting people to share and collaborate has been a wonderful thing. Today, I believe that giving us the time to think will be even better (see The collaboration curse). As an illustration, regardless of current methodological trends, creativity rarely emerges rapidly. Many ideas need time to mature, they need different contexts or mindsets to get stronger. This does not often happen when teams are in ‘sprints’ or a young start-up feels under the gun in its ‘incubator’. I participated in ‘start-up accelerator’ mentoring sessions in which I advised young entrepreneurs to step back and consider if their objectives were about speed and scale. Many of them were lured by that Silicon Valley’s unicorn fantasy. Not surprisingly, the first startup decelerator program has now been created, and socratic design workshops are becoming a thing for tech executives to reconsider what’s important.

Tech entrepreneurs who have the luxury to step back and focus on issues that really matter.

The Big Now economy overlooks the beauty of running a small and sustainable business that invests time for humans, curiosity and explorations. I believe our Near Future Laboratory is that type of organization or what Jason Fried would probably call a calm company. We treat time as the most valuable resource. All through the years, we were never very hurried and never really dreamed about scale. We experienced firsthand that crazy busy companies are especially great at wasting attention, resources, energy, and above all they do not usually respect people’s time. The next version of the Internet cannot only mirror the ways these companies operate. It cannot only focus on making people as efficient and busy as possible.

Each week, I reserve at least a full day for reflection through reading, writing, sketching, coding or meeting people outside of current business. Additionally, I reserve idle time to be responsive for important demands. I use social media for memory and discovery and not to mitigate a fear of missing out. In return, I agree that time is more precious than money, I certainly disappoint some people by saying ‘no’ or for not being available, and I prioritize the goals I want to achieve to the point of letting some of them go. This is my trade-off for moving beyond the Big Now. And those are some of the values that could be embedded into another version of the Internet.

My Swatch .Beat is the symbol of the previous version of the Internet. It was a watchmaker’s proposal to adapt to the changing time patterns online. In the current version of the Internet, digital artifacts connect individuals into feedback loops that drastically compress time and give a sense of simultaneity: the Big Now. With the lure of control, the more data we produce online, the faster the Internet gets back to us to respond to our fascination for real-time information, to influence our behaviors or to grab our attention. Like in other moments of major revolution in information technology, individuals and organizations need to adapt their values, practices and objectives to get their time and attention back. I believe one of the first weak signal of the next version of the Internet will be when somebody finds a word for “the email you put off responding to because you want to give it your full attention — and thus never answer”. The challenge then will be for all to have the opportunity to respond to that email. Today, this feels like a luxury.

Why do I blog this: At Near Future Laboratory we are always fascinated by the interplay between technology and time. We regularly engage into prototyping and envisioning exercises that explore how people negotiate their relation with time via digital technologies. For instance: Slow messenger, Humans, Memento and Omata.

Prototyping futures to clarify the present with data science and design. Co-founder Creator of